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Solar catalyst captures methane to create pure hydrogen and carbon
Loz Blain

Methane has a greenhouse effect 80 times worse than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, and emissions are skyrocketing even as we start reducing CO2. That makes UCF's new hydrocarbon-capturing, sunlight-powered catalyst a very compelling idea.

Researchers at the University of Central Florida's Nanoscience Technology Center and Florida Space Institute say they've come up with a boron-rich photocatalyst, engineered with nanoscale defects, or structural irregularities, that allow it to split hydrocarbon chains like methane into harmless components. 

Inputs are simply sunlight – concentrated, if possible – and air containing hydrocarbons. Outputs are pure hydrogen, which can be used for all manner of energy purposes, and pure carbon, another saleable commodity that's useful for its heat and electrical conductivity, and its properties as a lubricant, among other things. 

Importantly, the process creates no carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide. That's in stark contrast to typical industrial processes used to produce hydrogen or syngas from methane and water, which emit large amounts of one or the other. 

“That invention is actually a twofer,” says UCF catalysis expert Richard Blair in a press release. “You get green hydrogen, and you remove – not really sequester – methane. You’re processing methane into just hydrogen and pure carbon that can be used for things like batteries. Our process takes a greenhouse gas, methane, and converts it into something that’s not a greenhouse gas and two things that are valuable products, hydrogen and carbon – and we’ve removed methane from the cycle."

The team believes their work could significantly lower the costs of energy-generating catalysts, broaden the range of light frequencies in the visible range that they work with, and increase the efficiency of solar photocatalysis. 

Not only could it enable industrial production of greener-than-green hydrogen without needing water, it could also offer a commercially viable way of directly capturing atmospheric methane.

Methane is an unavoidable byproduct of agriculture, landfill waste, wastewater treatment facilities and several major industrial processes. It leaks out in large amounts wherever natural gas producers drill for it, and through the pipes and fittings it travels through on its way to homes and industries, where it's typically burned to produce more carbon dioxide.

Human-driven climate change is already beginning to cause a notable spike in atmospheric methane thanks to the expansion of tropical wetlands, from which it's released due to decomposition, and also the thawing of polar permafrost, which traps huge amounts of methane.

It's a massive and growing problem, and the idea of a solar-driven methane capture technology that could potentially be deployed around large methane emissions sites while generating multiple income streams is certainly an exciting one if this photocatalyst proves viable at commercial scale. 

“Until we came along, that kind of boron nitride was considered just inert,” Blair says. “Maybe a lubricant, maybe for cosmetics. But it didn’t have any chemical use. However, with defect engineering, the research team found that the compound had great potential for producing carbon and green hydrogen, possibly in large volumes.”

The team is looking for licensing and sponsored research opportunities to move the technology forward. 

Source: University of Central Florida



Loz has been one of our most versatile contributors since 2007. Joining the team as a motorcycle specialist, he has since covered everything from medical and military technology to aeronautics, music gear and historical artefacts. Since 2010 he's branched out into photography, video and audio production, and he remains the only New Atlas contributor willing to put his name to a sex toy review. A singer by night, he's often on the road with his acappella band Suade.

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